Thursday, July 31, 2014

After the experiment comes the comeback

In my previous blog post I wrote about the major changes I have made this spring to my training plan. So the question is, did cutting training volume, doing more auxiliary strength work and changing up nutrition actually help? Well,  the short answer is yes. Absolutely yes. The longer answer is still a resounding yes but it took a lot of time, tweaking and patience to get to the payoff. Here's how I got to the yes:

Shamrock 8k. Not a pretty race but a
cool pic!
March: When I wrote my last blog post in March I was still struggling with my odd foot injury. I kept
trying to run but with no success - my foot hurt like crazy. I did manage to string together one good week of training and show up at the Oiselle Team spring meet up in Virginia Beach capable of running the Shamrock 8k. While the weekend was incredibly fun the race itself wasn't much to write home about. I had no speed to speak of and not enough endurance to get me through 8k very happily but I did manage to finish second in the Masters field. Score 1 for being over 40! Unfortunately my leg tightened up after the race and I didn't run again for weeks. I was back swimming 7 days a week and doing core work twice a week for the duration of the injury, but that was it.

My first pain-free run! Cue the
rainbows and puppies. 
April: With the help of my amazing PT's, Shefali and Hannah at Athletic Advantage Physical Therapy I finally got to add some running into the mix. Patience paid off and I had my first "real" and pain-free run in California with all of my fellow LUNA athletes when I was there for our annual Summit. I can't imagine a better time to start feeling like a runner again than running along the San Francisco Bay surrounded by dozens and dozens of ladies who all represent the same amazing company at varying levels. LUNA Summit is undoubtedly one of my favorite weekends of the whole year. I returned from that trip both athletically and emotionally rejuvenated and determined to represent both LUNA and Oiselle well this year. Ironically I knew that the way to do that was to start with a very conservative return to running.  I was up to 7 miles by the time the Boston marathon rolled around so I made the (easy for me) choice to not even attempt the race. (I ended up with food poisoning the night before the race so I would have been out of it regardless so that worked out fine.) Instead I had a wonderful time cheering on my Oiselle, LUNA and Bull City Track Club teammates running the race.  After I recovered from the food poisoning I spent the rest of the month easing my mileage up to 30 miles a week, running without a watch more often than not, ignoring my paces and just taking it easy. It is hard work as a runner to practice patience in a return to running but I knew that if I didn't work back slowly I would pay for it down the road...and I didn't have time for that!
Pre-Boston Marathon Oiselle team dinner. It was kind of like a
junior high sleep over...laughing, discussion of teen
crushes and really bad jokes abounded.
Lots of watch-free running
in April and early May. 

May: May brought my first attempts at speed and tempo workouts. Running fast was pretty tough at first but frankly I was amazed by how much fitness my body had maintained through 4 months of not running consistently. We started off with fartleks and then moved to more structured work. Until just this week my speed sessions have been shorter than they used to be: 4800 meters max as opposed to 6000. During this month I started adding UCan into my pre-run routine on workout days, drinking one serving 60 minutes before a workout. I was surprised to find that it really worked well - my energy was incredibly even during many of my hard effort days with no crash at the end.

At the end of May I was able to pace my one of my favorite people, Carter, through one of my favorite races, the Running Of The Bulls in Durham. This race is a tough 8k put on by our local running store and I had a great experience here last year. I knew my fitness wasn't where it needed to be yet to really race this event so I took advantage of the situation and spent a lovely morning keeping Carter company as we romped around Durham, chatting, catching up and running a better race than she had anticipated (but one that I knew she was capable of!). 

June: With just under 7 weeks to go until my "A" races for the summer, June brought a lot of hard work, my first true racing effort and the introduction of heat training. Speed and lactate threshold workouts continued and on June 7th I laced up my spikes for the Southeastern Masters 5k. I really had no idea at all what to expect, but I knew that the most important goal was to have a good, confidence building racing experience. This is a great track meet but unfortunately this year they split the men's and women's fields for the 5k, which meant that I ended up running the 5K completely solo. Fortunately I had my trusty split timer and photographer, Oiselle teammate Allison Camp, there to make sure that I stayed on pace for 12.5 lonely laps. I spent my time counting laps, running on the conservative end of the race pace spectrum and watching Allison expertly juggle the stopwatch and the iPhone camera every time I passed her. The race certainly served its purpose: I got my pre-race nerves out, ran a hard effort and learned that I was well on my way back to having racing endurance again. The time was nothing to write home about: my 18:43 was 28 seconds slower than my time here last year. This was pretty disappointing to me at first but Allison doggedly reminded me that the time wasn't the goal at this race; the positive experience was. Thanks to her persistence I shed my pace concerns and ultimately was satisfied with the outcome.

I spent the rest of June slogging through the Southern heat and humidity, doing my workouts in the late morning swelter to prep for my July track races. In late June I had finally fine tuned my pre-run nutrition protocol and that definitely helped. While running in the extreme heat and humidity was challenging, I was finding that all but my longest lactate threshold efforts were coming in at my non-heat training paces. I figured this was good news, but I still didn't quite know what it meant!

with one of my favorite people,
Margaret, pre-race.
July: I started July with the Carrboro Four on the Fourth, where my goals were to run sub-6:15 pace, test out my ability to run hard in the heat and, hopefully, place in the Masters division so that I could win a third handmade plate from the race series. (I figured that once I got the third plate my whole family could eat lunch off of matching pottery.) While I had a truly disappointing pace fade, descending from a 6:03 first mile to a 6:15 fourth mile, I did still manage to meet all of my goals. My pace came in at 6:10, I was the first Masters woman, fifth female overall and I won that third plate. Its the little things! The race was also a wonderful, fun morning with my local Oiselle teammates as Ellen and Jolene both raced and Carolyn cheered us on at JUST the right spot on the course.

Oiselle Team NC post-race!

Third plate!

Despite meeting all those goals I still walked away from the race a little dissatisfied with my racing. My pace faded dreadfully and I struggled mentally during the tough spots on the course. I'm guessing that these were related. (I also failed to take my full pre-race gel, which might have factored in.) But instead of wallowing in the disappointment I used it as a wake up call. I have ALWAYS struggled with the mental aspect of racing. I know so many runners who fill their minds with positive mantras and self talk, but I always seem to find myself ruminating on how much pain I'm in. I spend a lot of time just making deals with myself to try to avoid taking a walking break (and I'm embarrassed to admit how often I give in and actually take said break!). But this race was the wake up call I needed. I knew that I had two big, daunting, difficult races just 2 weeks later and I needed to get my mental game together. 

What did I do? Well, not much actually. I just thought about it. But I thought about it A LOT. I nodded off at night visualizing myself being positive during races. I practiced the one mantra I have ever used, over and over and over again. I would say it to myself during speed and tempo workouts, while driving my son to camp, while cooking dinner...any time I thought about the upcoming races I made sure I thought about being positive. I reminded myself that the painful moments in a race often pass if you just ride them out for a few minutes. I channeled my LUNA teammate Kara LaPoint, who is the toughest, grittiest athlete I know. This certainly was no scientific sports psychology program, but it definitely helped. By the time race week arrived I had done all of these things so many times that I was confident that at least SOME of those positive thoughts, triggers and mantras were firmly implanted in my brain. I certainly felt different: I was oddly calm, no big nerves, no racing heart as I tried to fall asleep at night, no queasiness. My last workout pre-race was stellar and my runs felt easy. All of this, of course, totally freaked me out. But I realized that I really had nothing to lose: there was no one putting pressure on me other than me. I wasn't going to let anyone down if I didn't race well. And I only had 10 weeks of workouts under my belt so I wasn't at peak fitness anyway. So instead of my normal basket of nerves I showed up at the races with a lot of respect for the miles ahead of me, a healthy dose of intimidation of my competitors and a strange sense of calm.

These two "A" races were the 5k and the 1500 meters at the Masters National Track and Field Championships. The 5k was run Friday morning and the 1500 meters was run 24 hours later. Miraculously, the Southern heat and humidity took a vacation and we were greeted with cool morning air. I was lucky enough to be joined at the races by my crackerjack Masters teammates from Bull City Track Club. Alison, Nancy and Caren are incredible runners, caring friends and great travel partners. I really couldn't ask for a better group to race the USATF Masters circuit with!

Nancy, me & Alison
Alison, Nancy and I were all registered for the 5k and Caren made the last-minute decision to come along and cheer for us. During the 90 minute drive to Winston-Salem I downed my bottle of electrolytes and Osmo and my bottle of UCAN. Once there we (all track novices still) navigated all the formalities of track racing: pinning bibs all over our singlets, checking in with clerks and officials, sticking the sticky numbers on our chests. After gulping down my pre-race gel it was finally time to line up. Going into this race I was seeded seventh. You will not be surprised to learn that in advance of this meet I had google stalked the entire field and based on this research I figured that if I had a good day I might finish as high as fifth. But as I stood on the line I tried to banish any thoughts of the potential race outcome from my brain and just concentrate on the task ahead. The goal was to go out with Alison in 89 or 90 seconds per lap (that's a 5:56 to 6:00 pace) and then pick the pace up later if I felt strong. Caren was in the stands, watch ready to holler splits at us and cheer encouragement, so (completely out of character for me) I didn't even wear my watch.

When the gun went off there was about 300 meters of total mayhem. I clipped and was clipped by a bunch of women as we sorted ourselves out but I never felt like I was going to go down. By the end of the first lap we had settled into a 90 second pace and the group had strung out a bit. I sat in 5th place for a much of the race: the undeniably super-human Sonja Friend-Uhl was way, way off the front en route to a stellar solo effort and then I was trailing just off the back of a pack of 3 other women. One of them is a local runner who I know is speedy and the other two, I gathered from the announcer's commentary, are former collegiate stars. Over the course of the first two miles the pace dropped consistently: after a few 90's I heard Caren shouting 89's. Good, I thought...I'm confident that I can handle 89's. Then after a few laps of that she switched to 88's. This was my dream pace for this race...the pace I figured I could run if everything went just right. So when I heard the first 88 I checked in with myself. Much to my surprise I found that I was feeling completely smooth, aerobic and in control. So
I just kept cruising along. With 6 laps to go, doubt crept in briefly. I found myself thinking that is usually at this point in a 5k that I start to lose my form, get tired and, honestly, get a little bored. Not surprisingly, just after I had those thoughts my form got a little wonky. But I was even more amazed to find that I was able to banish those thoughts from my head, channel Kara's grit and get my act back together. Caren yelled at me to keep my eyes up on the corners and hollered that I was strong, which were the best verbal cues anyone could have possibly given me as they helped keep my form from deteriorating and kept my confidence up. Somewhere after 6 laps to go I slid up into fourth place and was delighted. I was feeling good and was confident at this point that I could finish the race at this pace and exceed my fifth place finish goal.

And then, just before 4 to go, it seemed like the pace of the 2 women in front of me slowed. I honestly didn't make a conscious move past them, but I felt like I either needed to hold my pace and pass them or slow down significantly. All of a sudden I found myself in second. I had a brief "holy crud, what am I doing here" moment, but again I checked in with myself, found that I was still running entirely within my fitness and so I just kept going. At 3.5 to go Caren hollered out 87 and I freaked out a little bit again. That's my goal 5k pace and I was NOT expecting to hit it during this race. But I just kept going. 2.5 to go and I hit another 87. And then with 600 meters to go Caren shouted "85!" What the what?!?! I just ran an 85 second quarter? I am happy when I hit an 85 in a workout! I honestly didn't feel like I had picked up the pace at all since the second lap of the race. But instead of freaking out I checked in with my body again, found that I was doing fine, had a little positive chat with myself and just kept hauling along. 200 meters to go brought news that my last full lap was one more 85 and from there on in I just kicked for the finish line. I actually had the realization during my "kick" that I could probably go significantly faster than I was going at that point, but I actually decided against it because it sounded like too much work at that point.

As I approached the finish line I realized that the clock was frozen on Sonja's winning time of 17:22 so I had NO idea what my time was going to be. But just as I crossed an official with a watch called out 18:15. And that was it. I was done. I wasn't spent. I didn't have to lie down to recover. I just felt totally...fine. If you know me, you know this is never, ever the case for me after a race. I have sat or laid down just beyond almost every finish line I have crossed in the last 5 years. So this was very, very odd. But once I got over the shock of how much energy I had left I can honestly say that I just felt completely satisfied. I ran a negative split 5k, the first one of my life. I closed with a 5:43 mile. I finished second in a strong field of women. Does this mean that I think I am the second fastest masters runner in the 5k in the country? Absolutely not. I KNOW that is far from the truth. But the placing was really the least of the victories in this race. Placing is external; it is somewhat dependent on who shows up at the starting line. My satisfaction came from the knowledge that all the focused, hard work I had done over the last 10 weeks had completely paid off. Had I known I was capable of running 18:15 so comfortably I would have probably run faster earlier on. But I would have gained what? Five, maybe ten seconds? That would have been cool, but I don't know that I would have had as satisfying of a race experience.
Post-race Bull City Track Club love 

Alison and Nancy finished hot on my heels and, after some sweaty hugs and big cups of water we jogged through a cool down, packed up and headed home. I had a grin plastered on my face for the remainder of the day but I was also a little concerned about my race the following morning. Was I going to feel totally flat when I stepped on the track? Did I even know HOW to run a 1500? Fortunately I didn't have too much time to worry about it; before I knew it I was packing up my son in the early morning hours and heading back to Winston-Salem to meet Caren for the 1500.

Once again we went through the regular pre-race hoopla and finally got called to the line. As I looked around I began to feel completely out of my league. Most of these women were 800/1500 meter track ladies. They looked fit and strong, long and lithe, and I was intimidated. But the gun doesn't wait for everyone's nerves to calm down so before I knew it we were off. The start was pretty dreadful. I thought I was boxed in at the start of the 5k but this was 10 times worse. I was literally jogging for the first 200 meters, trying to get out of the crowd! I finally succeeded and, much to my surprise at 300 meters in I found myself in third place. I was running fast, but I was also pretty darn relaxed. That said, I was petrified to pick it up lest my legs crap out with a lap to go. I just had NO idea where I was in regards to the top end of my capabilities. 400 meters in I heard the announcer say that Caren had pulled into fourth and I was relaxed enough to reach back and give her a thumbs up (I don't think she saw it, but I did it!). I just kept cruising along, but unfortunately my negative self-talk did crop up in this race a bit. The woman in second had a small gap on me and I just was sure that I wouldn't be able to close the gap and catch her so I stayed content with my position, all the way up to the end. I crossed the line in 5:03, two seconds out of second and just shy of my secret, fresh-legs goal of 4:59. Like yesterday, after I crossed the line I was able to just walk away. No sitting down, no need to even really catch my breath. I just walked away, turned around and cheered Caren in to her stellar, strong finish.

As I drove up to visit my parents after that second race, I was acutely aware that I could have run faster in both events. I had 7.5 hours to think about both races, replay them in my head, discuss them with my obliging 8 year old. But unlike past races my "underperformance" didn't make me mad at myself. Instead it gave me confidence that I am doing exactly what I need to do to meet my time goals for both the 5k and the mile this year. Before this weekend of racing I was in the midst of a big training experiment but now I am forging forward with a proven plan. Next stop, 17:59.


Just for fun, here are a few of the pro runners who ran RIGHT by me at Boston. Not being able to race has its perks!

Joan Benoit Samuelson

Alex Varner. Not a celeb runner to all, but
to his NC fans he is! He had just run a 50
miler the weekend prior to Boston. Crazy.

Desi Davila Linden


Shalane, looking fierce and in control

After the layoff comes the experiment

It would appear from my blogging frequency that I'm not particularly adept at this whole "writing regularly" game. That's partly true - I do have a hard time getting blog posts completed and published, but the main issue is that I don't want to write when I don't have something that may actually be useful or interesting for others to read. But, at long last I have something to say today that you runners might find interesting, so settle in for part one of a recap of what I've been doing with my training, racing and pacing as of late and how it is actually all one giant experiment that I'm conducting on myself this year.

To fully understand the nature of this experiment let's start with a quick look into how I have trained during the last few years: I was a high-ish mileage runner (for a recreational runner), logging 60-70 miles a week over 6-7 days of running. I incorporated core work sporadically and often ignored my coach's instructions to do drills and strides within my workouts due to lack of time or proper facilities. I also was happy to do the bulk of my speed work on my treadmill: I'm comfortable in that environment and as someone who never ran on a track until adulthood I've historically found the track to be daunting. (Yes, I just admitted that I was intimidated by a rubber oval. Silly, but true.)

This is where my foot was injured.

But then a few things happened: first, it occurred to me that I probably wasn't going to hold onto my top end speed forever and that I needed to get my act together if I was going to set any more PR's. (I just turned 41.) Second, I got injured. And I remained injured for four long, boring, excruciatingly painful (at times), frustrating months. As a result of these factors, when I was finally able to return to running I made a very conscious decision to step outside of my comfort zone and shake up my training in hopes of kick starting my speed, staying injury-free and hopefully achieving some of the goals I've been (not so secretly) holding onto.

Basically, as I returned from injury in late April and early May the plan was this:

1. Lower mileage. I built my mileage back up more slowly than I ever have post-injury and I'm now topping out in the mid-40's at best. I run 5 days a week now.

I swam so much that I destroyed this
swim suit in less than 4 months!
2. Swimming. I fell back into swimming after becoming bored to tears with aquajogging midway through my injury. My iPod broke and I couldn't stand one more minute of staring at the pool wall while running in place so I strapped on my goggles and went for it. I haven't really swum since my triathlon days (which ended in 2002!) and I'm by no means a talented swimmer but I quickly remembered what I love about swimming: a) it is completely solitary. Yes, I'm an extrovert. But I also love a little quiet time and swimming gives it to me. b) It stretches me out. All my aches and pains seem to dissolve in the pool. c) It increases my aerobic fitness enormously. Aqua jogging does this as well, but swimming is just much more meditative for me. So I swapped out 2 of my recovery runs for swims and have stuck with it.

The tools of my core and strength training
routine: stability ball, medicine ball,
wheel, rubber band and airex mat.
3. Consistent, functional, extremely challenging core work. Twice a week, every week. During the school year I get to do at least one of these workouts with my fantastic running friend Ellen Moss, which means that a tough 20 minute core workout is also a hilarious gossip session. We have fun and we kick our abs into shape. It has been hard to keep this up solo in the summer but I've been diligent. Also, all the work I do is geared towards running fitness. There are no vanity exercises, no crunches; just 12 or 13 really tough exercises designed to help maintain form when my body gets tired.*

mid core-workout with Ellen.
Laughing is a workout, right?

4. PT exercises. I do these in conjunction with my core work and they take 10 to 20 minutes. My injury was having a hard time healing due to the classical runner's woe of weak glute medius so I was prescribed a series of injuries to help with that. Since every single injury I have had in the past few years has in some way involved my weak flute medius it finally sank in that I should probably just do these exercises all the time. Who knows...they may help me avoid some injuries in the future!*

5. Drills and strides. And not just when I feel like it but every time my coach writes them into my workout. These take about 15 minutes and I do them between my warm up and my track and tempo workouts and after my long run. Drills help teach proper form, strengthen muscles and connective tissue and provide a dynamic warm up. Strides help train the neuromuscular system to run faster. Who wouldn't want those benefits?*

In Chapel Hill, even the track is Carolina Blue!
6. Running outside for my workouts. All the time. It dawned on me that skipping workouts on the track in favor of my treadmill just because I found the track daunting was pretty stupid considering my racing this summer centered around 2 track races. So I got my rear to the track and learned how to pace properly so that every workout wasn't a disaster. I also took my LT workouts outside, finding a mostly flat and somewhat shaded route that gave me a controlled environment while still putting me outdoors. I am amazed by how much faster I am able to run these workouts outdoors at the same perceived level of exertion. If nothing else, that fact alone gives me a confidence boost!

7. Finally, I switched up my nutrition. I'm still a huge fan of my LUNA and Clif products and they are heavily featured in my new plan but I have added UCan and an Osmo product into the mix. In the past I used to train on either an empty stomach or on a single LUNA bar. Post-workout I would eat when I got around to it. Sometimes that was right away, sometimes it was hours later. And I actually wondered why I was having a hard time recovering from workouts?!?! I was making the mistake of listening to my hunger cues and, unfortunately, running actually decreases my appetite for a couple of hours. (Not so with swimming!) The change here has been really quite drastic. I now consume a bottle of UCan one hour before any of my hard workouts: track, tempo or long run. If it is going to be extremely hot out I also drink a full bottle of Clif electrolytes with a scoop of Osmo pre-load hydration. I use the same nutritional prep before races, but I also add in a Clif shot espresso gel 15 minutes before the race. The change in my ability to hold my paces has been nothing short of astounding. My energy really just doesn't drop is actually a little freaky. The first time I tried this combo I thought it was a fluke, but week after week during my workouts I found the same results. I honestly still do not fully understand how its all working but its phenomenal to feel so good throughout my hard efforts that I am sticking to it!

As for post-run and race nutrition, I consume another bottle of electrolytes and a LUNA bar as soon as I can after my workouts. This actually stimulates my appetite so I am much better about following up quickly with a healthy meal. Sometimes "healthy" gets swapped out for a BLT or a milkshake, but I do try to keep things balanced.

So there you have it! That's a lot of change, right? The obvious next question is - did it work? Well, in the interest of not making your eyes glaze over too much, you're going to have to wait for that. The second half of this story will be posted later today or check back!

* I want to address why I am not detailing exactly what core work, strength work and drills I do in this post. While I am a NASM-certified personal trainer and a USATF-certified Level 1 coach, I think that this medium, blogging, is a pretty awful place to dispense detailed training advice. I simply don't feel comfortable posting the exercises I am doing here out of concern that someone will read about them or see photos and then perform them incorrectly. It is very important that core, strength and drill movements are performed with correct movement patterns; if not they can cause more harm than good. That said, if you are a local friend reading this and want to talk in person about what I've been doing I am more than happy to meet with you!